Any parents local to St Albans are bound to know Willows Activity Farm simply because it has such a great reputation as a perfect day out for children. But the farm’s position just off junction 22 of the M25 means it’s ideally located for families from outside the area too.
Willows is so much more than just a farm though. There is a huge array of different play activities to keep children of all ages entertained, and even if the weather isn’t perfect there is still a fair amount to see and do inside to make it a worthwhile trip. As soon as you arrive, most children just stand there for a moment amazed at the range of playgrounds stretching out in front of them, and my two ran off straight away towards The Big Dig which is their new sand and splash play.
The sand element of The Big Dig was great, but unfortunately the water sat mostly in stagnant puddles within the sand rather than flowing away anywhere, making it a bit dirty and messy compared to similar places we’ve visited before. A shame as water play is such a big hit with so many children, yet I saw several adults leading their children away from playing in what was effectively a big dirty puddle, even on a hot and sunny day.
Not deterred for long, my two then ran towards Woolly’s Workout Agility Play Trail and the Tree House Adventure climbing frames and slides. Both are brilliant for children of all ages, with different elements that they can all manage, and great for their physical development too.
As a parent, one thing that I really like about Willows is their policy that everything is included in the price – carousels, inflatables, soft play and the Squeeze and Squirt game where you squirt water at a plastic fire scene, which judging from the queues seemed to be the most popular thing on the site!
The huge inflatable slide in Bouncy Haystacks was a big hit and it was also good to see that it was constantly monitored by a staff member who ensured that children were safe and that bigger more confident children didn’t swamp younger ones who needed a bit more time and encouragement. I witnessed staff holding back a large group of boisterous boys for a couple of minutes to let a young girl with Downs Syndrome go down in her own time and seeing the huge grin on her face as she did was a joy.
Also included in the ticket price is a ride on Tristan the Tractor and the daily programme of events. We made time to see a show where ducks were rounded up by a sheep dog – really funny to watch – my daughter took part in a sports day style space hopper race and was very excited to receive a medal for her efforts.
The highlight of the day for me was actually one of their special summer shows featuring Little Grey Fergie. Now, I’d not come across Fergie before, but it turns out that he’s a huge star in Norway and he’s currently taking the UK by storm.
Fergie is a remote control full size tractor with very expressive eyes, and was the star of the show. The inventiveness and technology really impressed the adults watching, even if my two year old son was a little scared to see a tractor driving itself around an arena!
When we visited Willows it was an incredibly hot day and we were therefore very grateful to head inside for a little bit of shade in both Toddler Town and Woolly Jumpers Indoor Play Barn. Toddler Town is perfect for children who aren’t yet confident enough to spend too long in a busy soft play centre, or for those children who just love role play. Set out with a variety of shops and other locations all fully stocked with props and toys, children in there were just having a great time acting out a whole range of different activities. Woolly Jumpers is a great soft play centre at the farm and also features a range of different slides, some thrilling enough to keep children who might feel a bit old for some soft play centres happy. As with the inflatable slide outside, easily identifiable staff were very on the ball in ensuring that all children remained safe and that everyone got a fair turn on things.
Of course a visit to a farm wouldn’t be complete without some animals. My children got the chance to feed, stroke and hold some of the animals in The Farmyard and there are also alpacas, goats, sheep, cows, reindeer and horses to see as you go around the main site. You can buy bags of animal feed when you arrive or from vending machines inside the Farmyard and at just 60p each (or two for £1) they’re great for children to really feel involved in feeding the animals. There were also excellent handwash stations are all over the site.
With so many play activities it would actually be quite easy to visit Willows and miss out on some of the animals as you really do need a full day to see everything. We were there for over six hours and still missed out on a couple of things just due to time constraints!
A previous poor eating experience at the Willows cafe led us to take our own picnic with us and it was great to find a huge number of picnic benches around the site, including several set in little covered booths, providing great shelter from the weather – sun or rain. We bought ice creams whilst there and extra soft drinks in Woolly Jumpers. I went and had a look at the main cafe (Curly Tails Cafe) and I have to admit that it looked un-inspirational with food still served up in fast food style polystyrene boxes with plastic cutlery. It was certainly interesting to note that most people I saw around the site had come with picnics.
Willows is known locally for its seasonal attractions and their Maize Maze was a big hit with the kids when we visited. With the maize high enough that even adults can’t see the way out it was much more challenging that some mazes we’ve been to, though was a bit thick with nettles in places. An added challenge for the children was a series of jokes that were hidden at different locations around the maze. The children were given a sheet with the jokes on and scratch off panels against three possible answers. If they handed in a sheet with the correct answers they got a sticker at the end – always something that kids are prepared to work hard for.
My children had a fantastic day at Willows and are already asking when they can go back to do the bits that we didn’t have time to cover on this visit. They both went home exhausted, but with huge smiles on their faces. Whilst as an adult I might prefer to see more animals at a farm, Willows actually has a decent mix of farm and activities and playgrounds to keep children and parents happy.
There is a huge amount for children of all ages and abilities to do and their all-included policy works well. The ticket price (£60 for a family of 4 in the summer, or at weekends) does seem steep, but we managed to fill a full day there easily and I know that locally you can often find 2 for 1 vouchers in local newspapers and on the backs of parking tickets. On weekdays during term-time there is a reduced entry fee and many local families also opt for membership as this can be very economical if you visit regularly or go for more but shorter visits.
The Maize Maze and Little Grey Fergie show were part of the Willows Summer Spectacular which runs until 1st September. September 5th – 27th will see their Potato Shindig where children are able to harvest a free bag of potatoes from the Willows Potato Patch and then the Willows Pumpkin Festival runs over the October half term (24th October – 1st November) and will feature a free pumpkin for every child, alongside pumpkin carving competitions and Pumpkin Olympics.
For more information please visit the website of Willows Activity Farm
This review was written by Penny.
Penny lives in St Albans with her five-year-old daughter, nearly three-year-old son, patient husband, a tank of very resilient tropical fish, and enough craft supplies to start her own branch of Hobbycraft. She enjoys drinking tea, knitting, sewing, crochet, and exploring the great outdoors with her family. When not busy running a local playgroup or being a school governor she can be found blogging about the things that make her smile at www.beingmrsc.com
Disclosure – Penny and her family were guests of Willows Activity Farm